Monthly Archives: August 2018

Writing advice from James Baldwin

From Emily Temple at LitHub:

“Write a Sentence as Clean as a Bone” And Other Advice from James Baldwin

You Can Never Go Wrong Listening to This Guy

Ninety-four years after his birth (and more than thirty since his death) James Baldwin remains an intellectual, moral, and creative touchstone for many Americans—whether writers, critics, or simply people trying to live well in the world. Baldwin was an accomplished novelist, a legendary essayist, and an important civil rights activist—and most importantly for our purposes here, the man knew how to write a great sentence. His birthday is as good an excuse as any to revisit some of his teachings about the craft, and to that end, I’ve collected some of his best literary bon mots from essays and interviews below.

Write to find out.

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Spurn self-delusion.

I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.

-from the introduction to Nobody Knows My Name

Use every experience.

One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.

-from “Autobiographical Notes,” in the Collected Essays from Library of America

Read as much as you can.

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review


The story of what can happen to an American Negro writer in Europe simply illustrates, in some relief, what can happen to any American writer there. It is not meant, of course, to imply that it happens to them all, for Europe can be very crippling, too; and, anyway, a writer, when he has made his first breakthrough, has simply won a crucial skirmish in a dangerous, unending and unpredictable battle. Still, the breakthrough is important, and the point is that an American writer, in order to achieve it, very often has to leave this country.

-from “The Discovery of What It Means To Be an American”

Write with recklessness.

I find writing gets harder as time goes on. I’m speaking of the working process, which demands a certain amount of energy and courage (though I dislike using the word), and a certain amount of recklessness.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Trust the editing process.

Sometimes it comes very quickly. Seems almost to come from the top of my head. But in fact, it’s been gestating for a long, long time. Most of the time it’s not like that. Usually it’s a matter of writing, recognizing it ain’t right or it won’t move. You tear it up and do it again and again. And then one day something happens—it works.

-in a 1976 interview with Jewell Handy Gresham

But know when to stop.

When you’ve finished a novel it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Fight the conspiracy against you.

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.

-from “Autobiographical Notes,” in the Collected Essays from Library of America

Writing is hard.

Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Don’t be too ironic.

You are speaking to an old rat. I find much of so‐called avant‐garde writing utterly trivial. If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I’m an old‐fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. What I hope to convey? Well, joy, love, the passion to feel how our choices affect the world . . . that’s all.

-from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

Don’t describe it, show it.

[My first drafts] are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Look deeply.

It is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.

-from “Autobiographical Notes,” in the Collected Essays from Library of America

Simplicity is king.

You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Write towards truth.

I certainly can’t imagine art for art’s sake . . . that’s a European approach, which never made any sense to me. I think what you have to do, which is the difficult thing about a writer, is avoid slogans. You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound. It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.

-from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

Talent is less important than diligence.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Keep your distance.

Social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back.

-from “Autobiographical Notes,” in the Collected Essays from Library of America

Write what you see.

I don’t try to be prophetic, as I don’t sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality. It reminds me of something Pablo Picasso was supposed to have said to Gertrude Stein while he was painting her portrait. Gertrude said, “I don’t look like that.” And Picasso replied, “You will.” And he was right.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Remember why you write.

The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.

-from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

Just keep writing.

Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

-from “Autobiographical Notes,” in the Collected Essays from Library of America

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Inflammation and Depression

This is not some new-agey crap.  It’s from NIH.

The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target


Here’s the abstract:


Crosstalk between inflammatory pathways and neurocircuits in the brain can lead to behavioural responses, such as avoidance and alarm, that are likely to have provided early humans with an evolutionary advantage in their interactions with pathogens and predators. However, in modern times, such interactions between inflammation and the brain appear to drive the development of depression and may contribute to non-responsiveness to current antidepressant therapies. Recent data have elucidated the mechanisms by which the innate and adaptive immune systems interact with neurotransmitters and neurocircuits to influence the risk for depression. Here, we detail our current understanding of these pathways and discuss the therapeutic potential of targeting the immune system to treat depression.


Depression is a devastating disorder, afflicting up to 10% of the adult population in the United States and representing one of the leading causes of disability worldwide1. Although effective treatments are available, approximately one third of all patients with depression fail to respond to conventional antidepressant therapies2, further contributing to the global burden of the disease. Accordingly, there is a pressing need for new conceptual frameworks for understanding the development of depression to develop better treatments. In this Review, we outline emerging data that point to the immune system — and, in particular, the inflammatory response — as a potentially important contributor to the pathophysiology of depression. We first consider the origins of this notion from an evolutionary perspective, examining the advantages of depressive behaviours in the context of host immune responses to pathogens, predators and conspecifics in ancestral environments. The pivotal role of psychosocial stress in the modern world are then examined, highlighting inflammasome activation and immune cell trafficking as novel mechanisms by which stress-induced inflammatory signals can be transmitted to the brain. Neurotransmitters and neurocircuits that are targets of the inflammatory response are also explored followed by an examination of brain–immune interactions as risk and resilience factors for depression. Finally, these interactions are discussed as a foundation for a new era of therapeutics that target the immune system to treat depression, with a focus on how immunological biomarkers can be used to personalize care.

And a fun graphic with a lot of technical terms:

The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary impera

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Vagus Nerve

The Chopra Center has posted information on how to improve Vagal Tone, which can help reduce inflammation.

Read the whole article for the what and why, but here’s the how:

How to Perform Abdominal Massage

This abdominal massage technique is easy to do at home in just a few minutes. It is best to perform this practice on an empty stomach, a few hours after eating. Start slowly and see how your body responds.

  1. Lie down on a comfortable floor mat or on a bed.
  2. Place your hand below your sternum or breastbone. Make gentle downward stroking movements—moving your hand down toward your abdomen. Repeat this movement for a few minutes, cycling one hand over the other in a backward bike-pedaling–like motion.
  3. Next, use your fingertips to make small circular motions on your abdomen. Start massaging the sides of your abdomen and slowly work your way inward and downward. Go progressively deeper, using a firm but comfortable amount of pressure. Continue this abdominal massage for several minutes.
  4. End your practice with a few minutes of a gentle reclined two-knee spinal twist pose (Supta Matsyendrasana). This restorative yoga posture improves digestion and encourages an opening within the fascia and diaphragm to help you deepen your breath and induce an anti-inflammatory relaxation response.
    • Lying on your back, exhale as you press your lower back lightly into the floor or bed.
    • Breathe here for a few moments as your lower back opens.
    • When you are ready, gently contract your abdominal muscles as you inhale and bend your knees toward your chest.
    • Exhale and bring your arms out to your side with your palms toward the floor, even with your shoulders.
    • On a slow inhale, lift your heels a bit higher than your knees, and then as you exhale slowly lower both legs to the left toward the floor.
    • Keep your knees at the level of your hips and your feet and knees stacked together. Rest in this posture for 30 to 60 seconds.
    • Continue taking slow, deep breaths as you gently twist from side to side, moving with your breath.

Try out this simple practice for accessing the power of your vagus nerve. Perform these techniques for a few minutes once or twice a day for several weeks.


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Mark Sisson on Eating for Menopause

Metabolism and Menopause: What Does Research Suggest Is the Best Dietary Strategy?

By Mark Sisson

After my recent post on keto for women, I got a lot of feedback. One of the most common themes: “But what about menopause?” I heard from dozens of women in both the comment section and in emails who were having trouble losing weight and dealing with the varied symptoms of menopause. Was keto the answer? Was Primal? Were they doing something wrong?

Rather than start with the assumption that going keto or Primal is the best way to deal with menopause, I figured I’d start from ground zero, drawing on the extensive scientific literature on diet and menopausal symptoms to see if I could arrive at some general trends and make recommendations.

But first, why do we even experience menopause? In the big picture, menopause is rather rare. Besides humans, orcas and pilots whales are the only other species where the females live significantly beyond their reproductive age. The average age of menopause hovers around 50, and most women can expect to live another 30 years or so. That indicates its importance. It wouldn’t have been uniquely established and preserved in just a couple species if it didn’t provide huge benefits to those species. And sure enough:

  • The presence of grandmothers in a population enhances maternal survival during childbirth.
  • They provide childcare so parents can be more productive, whether it’s going back to work in the office or foraging for nuts and tubers in the bush.
  • They impart wisdom to the youngsters—and to the community as a whole.
  • And, though parents probably wouldn’t count this as a positive, they spoil grandkids rotten.

To boot, many women I know say menopause ushers in the most focused, creative time of their lives. If their reproductive years (particularly perimenopausal ones) were characterized by hormonal chaos, they often find themselves grateful to be free of the perpetual fluctuation. But mostly they say they’ve entered a time of life when they feel more confident and self-possessed. (Joan Erikson, wife of noted psychologist Erik Erikson as well as author, psychologist, teacher, and artisan, writes insightfully about this transition.)

All this said, menopause can also present its share of physical difficulties for many, if not most, women at some point. But do these effects need to be as unpleasant as they often are? I’d venture to say no. I have a few posts in mind here, but let’s dig into dietary strategy today.

First, let’s establish what changes physiologically during menopause. What are the most common symptoms of menopause? And what does the evidence say about how diet affects those symptoms?

Weight Gain

This might be the most common complaint women have during and after menopause: Weight goes on more easily and is harder than ever to scale back. Nothing seems to work, even the dietary interventions that previously did.

Why is weight loss so hard after menopause?

  • Energy expenditure and basal metabolic rate both drop with menopause.
  • Lower levels of estrogen increase appetite and reduce satiety.
  • Lower levels of estrogen reduce activation of brown fat, the metabolically-active body fat which burns energy.
  • If you’re experiencing another common side effect of menopause—insomnia—your sleep-deprived brain’s reward system will be more susceptible to the allure of junk food.
  • You’re older. As we age, weight becomes easier to put on and harder to remove for both men and women.

Despite these roadblocks, there is hope. Something has to work. And even if it doesn’t work as well as you’d like, there’s something that works less badly than the others.

For one, glycemic load matters. Many studies find that the glycemic load of a postmenopausal woman’s diet is a strong predictor of her fat mass. Remember that glycemic load is often a roundabout way of indicting carbohydrates without saying “carbohydrates.”

What really does seem to work is the classic paleolithic diet: lean meat, fruit, nuts, vegetables, eggs, berries, and fish with no grains, legumes, sugar, dairy, potatoes, or added salt. 40% of energy from fat, 30% from protein, 30% from carbohydrate. Over 24 months, menopausal women on a paleo diet lost more fat, more waist circumference, and more triglycerides than those on a standard “healthy” diet.

Perhaps it’s the protein. Another study found that postmenopausal women who ate the least protein (under 0.8 g protein per kg bodyweight) had the most body fat and were physically weak. Those who ate the most (over 0.8 g per kg, 1.1 g/kg on average) had the least body fat and were more physically capable.

What’s clear is that weight loss has beneficial effects on menopause symptoms. It reduces inflammation, improves cancer biomarkers, regulates sex hormones, and improves endothelial function—to name a few. What’s also clear is that weight loss can have negative second-order effects in menopausal women, like bone mineral loss and loss of lean mass. So, it’s worth doing, and doing right. You have to strike a fine balance between losing weight and avoiding muscle loss. As your satiety signaling is likely thrown off, you might have to make a more conscious effort to track your food intake and make sure you’re not overdoing it.

Heart Disease

Before menopause, most women are protected against heart disease, at least compared to men. Once menopause sets in, a woman’s heart disease risk goes way up. A good diet for menopause, then, would have to reduce heart disease risk. What does the evidence say?

In overweight post-menopausal women, high-fat diets (where the fat came from cheese or meat) improved atherogenic biomarkers compared to a high-carb diet. Both the cheese-based and meat-based diets increased HDL and Apo-A1; the high-carb diet did not.

Meanwhile, high-carb diets were persistently linked to chronic low-grade inflammation and an elevated risk of heart disease in postmenopausal women.

Moving beyond broad macronutrient ratios, are there any specific foods or nutrients that play an outsized role in menopasual women’s heart health?

Dark chocolate may help with reduced endothelial function, another risk factor for heart disease. Postmenopausal women who consumed high-cacao chocolate saw their endothelial function improve in one study.

Green tea appears to help postmenopausal women reduce fasting insulin, a major but underappreciated risk factor for heart disease (and a host of other bad conditions).

Bone Loss

As estrogen plays a big role in the maintenance of bone mineral density and overall bone health, bones get weaker and lose density during menopause. A woman’s risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and other bone-related incidents skyrocket during and after the transition.

Intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids—found in fish, shellfish, and fish oil supplements—is associated with higher bone mineral density at the hips and spine (the most crucial parts for aging people) in osteopenic women. Osteopenia is lower than normal bone mineral density. It isn’t quite osteoporosis, but osteopenia can often progress into it.

Glucose loading actively impairs bone remodeling in postmenopausal women. The problem doesn’t go away just because you exercise, either. And it gets worse the higher your postprandial blood glucose goes.

The normal bone-relevant nutrients become even more relevant after menopause:

  • One study in postmenopausal women found that yogurt fortified with vitamin D3 improved bone mineral density, while regular yogurt without the vitamin D3 worsened it.
  • Another found that a gram of calcium a day wasn’t enough to stave off bone mineral loss in menopausal women during weight loss; they needed at least 1.7 grams per day.
  • Another study found that a collagen supplement increased bone mineral density in post menopausal women.

Brain Fog

Everyone’s heard of “pregnancy brain.” There’s also “menopause brain.” It’s characterized by brain fog, memory loss, lack of focus, and other cognitive symptoms.

Postmenopausal women who ate low-glycemic breakfasts had better cognitive function than those eating high-glycemic breakfasts.

Some research also suggests a role for micronutrient supplementation in menopausal cognitive symptoms:

  • Vitamin C can help. In one study, postmenopausal women who took 500 mg of vitamin C a day improved verbal recall, naming, and repetition. These improvements were accompanied by reductions in beta-amyloids linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Resveratrol may help. In one study, it increased cerebral blood flow and improved overall cognitive performance during a series of tests, particularly in verbal memory.

Hot Flashes

Both fish oil and soy isoflavones have been shown to reduce hot flash occurrence, with soy acting faster on severe hot flashes and fish oil doing a better, but slower job of targeting both moderate and severe hot flashes.

Folic acid supplementation reduced the severity, duration, and frequency of hot flashes. A better source for folic acid are folate-rich foods, like leafy greens or liver.

Breast Cancer

A woman’s risk of breast cancer rises after menopause. After menopause, the inflammatory status of the breast goes up almost as a general rule. This explains at least part of the elevated risk for breast cancer postmenopausal women exhibit, and it’s true whether or not the woman is overweight or not. Menopausal breast fat is inflammatory fat.

Among Japanese women, those who ate the most noodles and other carbohydrates had higher levels of estradiol, which other studies have found correspond to a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Those who ate the most fish, fish fat, and saturated fat had lower levels, which correspond to a lower risk. Of course, the authors opine that this suggests eating more fish and say nothing about saturated fat, but we can’t really expect them to contradict decades of propaganda—I mean, evidence.

Oxidative Stress

Menopause is generally inflammatory; along with waist circumference, menopause status is an independent predictor of low-level inflammation and elevated hs-CRP (one of the most fundamental markers of inflammation). There’s a low level simmer going on, and it can cause a lot of problems. Diet can make it worse, or make it better.

High-glycemic diets—also known as diets high refined carbohydrates—are associated with more oxidative stress in post-menopausal women (for what it’s worth, the same is true in premenopausal women). Intakes of insoluble fiber and PUFA, including omega-3s and healthy sources of omega-6s like nuts, were linked to lower levels of oxidative stress.

Paleolithic diets, on the other hand, reverse inflammatory markers in postmenopausal women.

Folate supplementation reduces oxidative stress and normalizes blood pressure in postmenopausal women.

Genetics matter, of course. A growing body of evidence indicates that various genetic variants can influence the effects of some of these dietary interventions on the symptoms and risks associated with menopause.

Among Japanese and Japanese-Brazilians, for example, soy isoflavone intake protects against breast cancer only in those with certain genetic variants. It’s neutral otherwise.

There’s more to managing menopause than just diet, of course. Lifestyle decisions matter too. But that’s beyond the scope of today’s post. Maybe in the future.

So, can we make any recommendations? What are the takeaways? We see some trends emerge.

Dietary Takeaways

Avoid Refined Carbohydrates

Pretty much every study that looked at fast-digesting, low-nutrient sources of carbohydrates found they have a negative effect on most concerns of menopause, including bone health, breast cancer risk, heart health, weight gain, inflammation. Now more than ever, don’t eat them.

Limit Carbs To Only What You Use

If you’re an incredibly active woman, someone who CrossFits and runs sprints and swims laps and plays with grandkids, you can get away with more carbohydrates, and may even thrive with a few extra. But make sure you actually need those carbs.

Soy Isn’t a Bad Idea

I know, I know. Soy is evil, or something. But a number of studies indicate that soy can improve the overall menopause experience. Stick to whole soy vs isolated soy components. (And avoid GMO.) If you can include something like natto—fermented soybeans—a few times a week, you’ll get the benefits of soy isoflavones and vitamin K2.

Drink Green Tea

Several studies show that green tea (or green tea extracts) counters or ameliorates multiple menopause symptoms.

Eat Leafy Greens

Greens are a great source of folate and calcium, critical nutrients for postmenopausal health.

Eat Adequate Protein

1.1 g/kg should be the lower limit.

Eat Fish

A can of sardines (bone-in) provides omega-3s, calcium, and excellent protein.

Lean Toward a Higher-Fat-AND-Protein, Lower-Carb Diet

Make sure to stick with Primal foods.

Menopause isn’t easy for most women. Things are changing, hormones are in flux, and eating strategies you once employed may no longer work the same way. There’s no magic diet that fixes everything, but there are lots of little changes that can tilt the scales in your favor.

Try them out and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you’ve handled menopause via diet. Thanks for reading, and take care, everybody.

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